Notes on: Bonilla-Silva, E. and Zuberi, T. (2008). Toward a Definition of White Logic and White Methods. T Zuberi and E Bonilla-Silva (Eds). White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology. London: Rowman and LIttlefields publishers Incorporated

Dave Harris


Are research methods not objective?

The book grows out of their own life concerns and is to some extent personal, as 'sociologists of colour' (4) they want to examine race and to criticise the notion of objectivity, analysis and analysts. They do this via vignettes.

Zuberi first. He published a book about racial statistics on the history of racism, and met people who were afraid he was calling them racist. He was instead analysing the history and logic of statistical analysis in a spirit of self-criticism and critical evaluation. Statistical analysis was developed 'alongside a logic of racial reasoning' (5), and the founder of it also developed a theory of white supremacy [?]. He uses stats himself, knowing that it was connected with colonialism and eugenics, especially via Galton who was 'obsessed with explaining the racial hierarchy'. Colonialism and enslavement were crucial and racial statistics gave credibility to racial inequality.

Of course statistics are now used to refute racist arguments, but the methodologies still 'perpetuate the problem' (6), for example in discussing '"the effect of race"', which assumes that race is some unalterable characteristic of an individual. Instead we need to understand racial dynamics and how they have changed and have definitions have altered over time. The interpretation of race is crucial when discussing it as some apparently independent variable, connected with mortality rates, for example. The 'larger social world' is in danger of being ignored by stressing race instead of the way people respond to race, some effect of 'self-imposed choice within an externally imposed context' (7). Forgetting the context means that social science justifies racial stratification.

Race is a social construct and belief in race makes race real. The issue is why we should believe it to be real, and how to demystify it, including its use in racial statistics and the factors that have influenced these statistics including social interests. 'Data do not tell us a story' (7) and if we begin with a biosphere of the world, we end with one.

We have to distinguish between numbers and their use in statistics and in mathematics. Numbers in the latter follow from logical calculations, but in statistics we are talking about estimations based on uncertainties, applied axioms, which do not usually specify how they should be applied — the users decide. There is 'no set logic in the methods themselves' (8), and they are used according to a consensus among the practitioners. For example current methods were developed 'as part of the eugenics movement and continue to reflect the racist ideologies that gave rise to them', an early interest in human difference, found in statistical logic and even regression models.

We can see this best in the studies between race and intelligence. They assume that both intelligence and individual racial identity can be measured, say by a questionnaire and this already assumes that we understand the relationship as a connection between 'individual attributes'. This ignores how this relationship has been designed and come to be accepted — the data has been 'generated by our own biases', and only then does become objective and consistent. All this was generated within the 'intellectual movement of eugenics'.

The revelation that much of statistics is in fact socially constructed, can be met with the defence that he still a good way to inform public policy. This might be true, but interpretation and analysis still depends on some underlying theory, a causal one, that social scientists may not even be aware of. It is usually a claim to have a strong theory that explains the strength of belief in the statistics. This debate often does not go any further, however.

A more specific issue arose when discussing race in population resources, and a particular discussion of an article that claimed that eugenics thinking was still present, in an attempt to integrate biological and social factors. The argument was that it was important to examine the relationship, but the particular approach was weak, 'an anachronistic theory of racial difference' accompanied by a misuse of statistical methods' (10). However, this misuse 'in the analysis of race is routinely allowed in social science journals' [!].

The argument was that reproductive isolation had led to differences in gene frequency among racial groups. The mother's self-reported racial identification was used in definition here, an indirect and socially constructed matter, but standard practice because there is no other 'scientific way', especially to measure 'the genetic aspect of race'. The mothers were of course using a socially constructed idea using skin colour, a rather arbitrary decision, allegedly based on a 'melancortin 1 receptor', but it is unknown as a factor affecting other matters like health outcomes. Biological variation is real yet 'race is a distorted way of organising this variation' and 'biology is not its root cause'. The authors misunderstood this. Further biology relates to individuals, but demography refers to populations not individual attributes. There were also problems with statistical methods which did not use a genetic understanding adequately — they used a statistical model instead of a genetic one [no aetiology?]. There was no way to conduct empirical testing. They did not realise that numbers in statistics are estimates, and cannot be used in mathematical proof, to indicate that something is real.

The debate had little impact on research practice and further articles were published on racial differences, for example in birth weight, although they did not cite the debate. it shows how powerful racial statistics still are, and that they are still critical 'in guiding and justifying both private belief and public policy' [on both sides] (12). Government statistics, for example look scientific, are used by reputable scholars, but are still 'misleading, inappropriate, or false' although few are able to detect this.

As a result we are seeing a 'revival of the biological idea of race', in medicine and science, and a hidden influence of eugenics, a silence about the misuse of racial statistics, a disservice done by disciplinary journals. We need more analysis and discussion, the dedication to justice.

[Bonilla Silva discusses reactions to his own book Racism without racists 2006]. He presented at the University of Michigan and found whiteness seeping through the cracks in the questions.

He was asked about coding and intercoder reliability, suspecting that this was asked only about investigations of race. He was also challenged for the lack of longitudinal data, and replied by saying that he also used interview data as a kind of triangulation. Apparently it revealed that many of the white respondents who show tolerance to multichoice survey questions looked different when they gave responses to in depth questions [and there is a reference to the piece with Forman]. Longitudinal data also presuppose that racism have not changed or developed, but he believes that it has. He was challenged for lacking scientific rigour — 'Ah, whiteness grants the gift of eternal objectivity to its grantees!' (14).

He was questioned about whether he saw concern about interracial marriage as rationalisations rather than real concern about the effects on children. His reply was that he didn't recognise 'the ambivalence and angst' in these matters, but the usual way of interpreting that was to suggest that whites were ambivalent, for example in agreeing with integration but disagreeing with most of the policies designed to accomplish it. This sort of ambivalence seemed to him to be a naïve interpretation, equivalent to saying whites were ignorant of racial matters. Instead it's a matter of maintaining 'systemic privilege by failing to do anything about racial inequality'(14). He believes that whites are concerned that mixed race couples might produce children who experienced discrimination, that he asks them why if we are a colourblind society, and points out that this is a problem with colourblindness, suggesting that again this is a rationalisation.

Another challenge arose in connection with diversity and whether it should be replaced with universalism. He pointed to the exclusion of sociologists of colour from the curriculum, and got accused of racism, fanning racial flames, making arguments for which he did not have data. The consequence was 'the beginning of the end for me as a professor at Michigan' (15).

The final section starts with a quote from Poulantzas that concepts and notions are never innocent, and though it is  dangerous sometimes to reply to adversaries on equal terms.

They offer four problems inherent in white logic and white methods:
(1) whites in the USA are the dominant group and they have an interest in keeping a racial order and racial stratification, and unequal distribution of rights and privileges, including a view of reality and a dominant perspective in sociology privileges whites. Their study of race was designed to support racial stratification and colonial efforts although it appeared to be 'carefully thought out result of experience and reason' (16)

(2) both physical and social sciences have helped define racial stratification are scientifically legitimate and socially acceptable. They were often monopolised by white people and reflected the dominant racial views, justifying racial stratification. Unable to develop objectivity.

(3) even after a few scholars of colour were integrated, white males still dominated them and integration did not transform ways of thinking. Most scholars hoped that 'integration would produce white scholars with black faces'. Most scholarship proceeded as ethnographic excerpts or statistical analysis which did not challenge white supremacy even though it posed a subjective study, leading to an early challenge of the scientific claims of sociology [subsequent heroes include Hill Collins and Tuhiwai Smith]. Dubois and even Weber were early challenges, although they have little impact compared to the mainstream, who have still not acknowledged their work [including Wacquant].

(4) sociology is still white led and white dominated, although some readers will strongly disagree that there is white logic or white methods, and will instead blame bias. Many sociologists of colour continue to doubt research findings about race by white people, and there is a lengthy tradition of criticising the whiteness of sociology [some are listed, including Hill Collins, Winant and Omi, and others] (17) as a result, a certain Murray is right that there is no particular reason why Negroes still regard social science with anything other than suspicion, and surveys as frauds.

White logic defies 'reasoning about social facts… Grants eternal objectivity to the views of elite whites and condemns the views of nonwhites to perpetual subjectivity'. It is anchored in the Western imagination, where white men are central and others have no knowledge history or science, and are incapable of meaning making.

Some will want to claim that the logic of social science operates without bias, but they argue that all scientific endeavours 'transpire in a world where race, gender and class are important not only as subject to investigation, but as structural factors that partly shaped researchers and their scientific gaze' (18). The normative order of science is 'white male bourgeois and heterosexual'.

They are not arguing that racial subalterns are necessarily able to better understand the social world, partly because they have often employed white logic and white methods themselves, although they have also led the critique, drawing on their own knowledge and experience.

White methods are the practical tools to manufacture empirical data and analysis, and they produce '"racial knowledge"' and have done since white supremacy emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries (18). They are linked to white logic, entangled. They were originally mostly argumentative, and found in early sociology and their need to scientifically build on data, including data produced by all kinds of phrenologists and eugenicists in the early days [and they include Chicago school people are reproduced 'racial common sense' (19)]. Some were openly biological racists, others were more accommodationist. Some were openly in opposition.

New practices have developed, but they still generate racial knowledge — 'surveys, ethnography, various demographic indices, genetics, scholastic aptitude tests, and comparative history'. However, there is always resistance. An early sign was Dubois, and there has been others. This resistance is needed, together with social movements of protest.

[The chapters in the volume are summarised — they look good, focusing on specific criticisms of census data, black racial classifications, definitions of race, especially as causal variables, quantitative methods generally and how they neglect interactive processes, how a range of contemporary sociological studies claim that race is declining in significance, which 'both reflects and reproduces whites racial common sense' (21), how colourblind racism seems to have emerged in social psychology, and how ethnography can maintain pathological views of people of colour]
One section argues that we need 'new methods and optics' both the scientific and political reasons, to increase resistance to white domination, to raise the self-esteem of new thinkers, to encourage them to trust their own cognitive powers too proceed to liberate themselves from white logic and white methods.

Note 3 refers to Dalton and his work on the hereditary Genius, which he says arose from 'considering the mental peculiarities of different races''